August 17, 2006
"'Jew Like Me' is another strategy. Walk a mile in my shoes. Gain 10 pounds at my table. Wait two hours after lunch before swimming. Laugh that ironic meta-laugh right along with us when Jon Stewart says, 'Jewey.' Sensitize yourself to code like 'New York Times' and 'neocon.' Defend Likud. Like halvah. Who knows -- you might even get a development deal out of it. 'Gentleman's Agreement' meets 'Dude, Where's My Foreskin?' If I were Bob Iger, I'd buy that in a New York minute."
You might not guess from reading the above that Kaplan is often referred to as a "public intellectual." But he is. His current title is dean of the Annenberg School at USC and chairman of the Norman Lear Center. But Kaplan has led many lives -- molecular biologist, comedy writer, White House speechwriter, Disney exec, radio host. As Kaplan recently wrote me in an e-mail when I asked, "Which of those is you ?"
"I'm all those things, plus father, citizen, liberal, gadfly, civic activist, romantic, Jew, philosophical hypochondriac...."
From my limited exposure I can also add that he is engaging and disarming, with great reserves of charm. So who is Marty Kaplan?
Kaplan was born in Newark, N.J. -- Philip Roth country -- and grew up in the nearby suburb of Union. The grandson of Russian immigrants, Kaplan's father was an accountant whose mother was herself an immigrant from the same Russian shtetl that his grandparents came from. Yiddish was spoken in the home, and the only household Kaplan remembers seeing books was in that of his uncle (his mother's brother), who attended Yale and was a microbiologist.
For his part, Kaplan graduated Harvard College with a summa in molecular biology and worked in the lab of James D. Watson (of Watson and Crick DNA fame). During his time at Harvard, Kaplan was not only president of the Harvard Lampoon (and the first to invite women to join), but also served on the editorial boards of the Crimson, the Advocate and belonged to the Signet Society. When I asked how such multiculturalism could occur, Kaplan replied, "It was during the revolution, so all things were possible."
Kaplan's post-graduate resume is just as impressive: A Marshall Scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied English literature under George Steiner and first befriended Arianna Stassinopoulos (now Huffington) and Douglas Adams of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" fame; followed by a Danforth at Stanford, where his doctoral dissertation in modern thought and philosophy was a study of collage as a way to "build a life out of pieces" in a post-modern world. Which is exactly what Kaplan proceeded to do in his professional life.
Kaplan went to Washington at the start of the Carter administration, serving on the staff of U.S. Commissioner on Education Ernie Boyle before being recruited by Vice President Walter Mondale to be his chief speechwriter.
"I was 27 years old, and I went to work in the White House every day, and I had a front-row seat on history," Kaplan now says.
During his time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he met many future notables, including Bill Clinton, then a first-term governor of Arkansas. Presidential speechwriters included James Fallows (now at the Atlantic), Chris Matthews ("Hardball") and Hendrik Hertzberg (now at the New Yorker). Kaplan hired Charles Krauthammer, who had been a psychiatrist, to his staff.
Carter's presidency was a difficult time with high interest rates, inflation, a gas crisis and the Iran hostage crisis, which kept the president a prisoner in the Rose Garden for 444 days.
"It was hard and dispiriting," Kaplan recalls.
However, as a result, Mondale took on more international assignments. One of Kaplan's proudest moments came when Mondale was called upon to give a speech at the United Nations in Geneva about "the boat people," urging the member nations to take in more Vietnamese refugees. Mondale asked Kaplan to confer with a member of the U.S. delegation, Elie Wiesel, who admonished, "History will be watching you, young man."
"No one would have listened to me if I gave that speech," Kaplan says. But after Mondale spoke, the other nations agreed to help. Wiesel gave Kaplan a hug. That speech, Kaplan says, "made a difference."
In 1980, Carter/Mondale suffered a stinging defeat to Ronald Reagan. In 1984 Mondale campaigned for president. Kaplan was deputy campaign manager and that, too, was a long, hard struggle that ended in defeat.
By the end of 1984, Kaplan had spent eight years in Washington, and California beckoned: He wanted to revive his creative side (that part that presided over the Lampoon), and he was envious of his former college roommate, Tom Werner, who had gone to California right out of college to become a successful TV creative executive (and would go on to greater success with Carsey-Werner, "The Cosby Show" and the Boston Red Sox).
Disney Studios had recently been taken over by a new management team: Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells. Katzenberg, who had worked for New York Mayor John Lindsay, saw the analogy between the political and studio worlds and "thought it was worth rolling the dice on me."
Kaplan spent 12 years at Disney, the first five as a vice president at a time when "the entire senior administration could sit on Jeffrey's couch, and we did."
"It was bliss to be part of a group that felt it was reinventing the studio system." Kaplan says.
However Wells' death in 1994 prompted change both in the executive ranks and among the relationship of the executives who remained. What had once been a familiar place became less so to Kaplan, who segued into an exclusive writing and producing deal at Disney. The frustration of working on projects and notes for successive sets of executives wore thin.
"It underscored the arbitrariness of power," he said.
Once again serendipity came knocking in the form of Geoffrey Cowan, who had just been named dean of the Annenberg School at USC. The school was in need of a new direction, leadership and energy. Over breakfast at Junior's, sparks began to fly: "I felt the same excitement I had not felt since my early days at Disney, or my early days at the White House. It felt beshert. So I joined him."
Kaplan is now in the beginning of his 10th year as associate dean of the Annenberg School. Since 2000, he has been director of the Norman Lear Center, "a multidisciplinary research and public policy center exploring the implications of the convergence of entertainment, commerce and society."
What this really means is a convergence of all of Kaplan's myriad interests -- the center's manifesto quotes Plato, Aristotle, Dickens, MTV and Neil Postman. As Kaplan sees it, everything today is becoming entertainment, including news and politics. The collage of modern life, if you will.
"For better or for worse, the need to capture and hold the attention of audiences is at the core of practically every domain in modern society," he said.
Over the past few years, Annenberg has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide experts and information to writers and producers so that the medical information presented on such shows as "Grey's Anatomy" or a daytime soap opera is accurate (Are you really surprised that people find out about diseases and treatments from TV programs?)
The Lear Center has supported studies and publications examining how politics and propaganda were promulgated by Warner Bros. during wartime, as well as discussions on the ownership of creative content and on the image of the journalist in American film, to name but a few of the dozens of projects the center has initiated. Among the projects Kaplan is most proud of is a study of global TV and the public interest obligations of local TV news, as well as symposia and publications asking how to improve political coverage on TV, particularly on local news programs.
Kaplan's resume as redacted in this column could be read as a series of unrelated career moves. But ask him how he sees what he's doing, and he answers: "What I'm trying to do is tikkun olam, to illuminate and repair the world, to shine a moral, political, academic light on consequential currents moving in our world in this lifetime. To make people think, to laugh, and to act."
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.